I love Gorillas. They are adorable, gentle, kind and hilarious. If you aren’t a fan, maybe stop reading this post and go get your head checked. Maybe go eat bananas!
If you are ever in Uganda, Rwanda or the DRC (The Democratic Republic of Congo), go see some Gorillas. Actually, go and see them even if you’re not, make the trip especially. It is worth every penny. I visited Virunga National Park.
Before you make an objection you would be totally justified in making, know that the gorillas live in peace and freedom, with their families, in the rain forests of the region joining the three countries. They are not caged or forced to parade around for us. They are not sold and bought. They wonder the park as families in search of yummy food and good spots to lie down or swing about in.
Up until relatively recently, gorillas were hunted and killed for meat and sport. Not anymore, people learned their value and there is now a sustained effort to preserve them. It is expensive to see them as the money is raised to help the communities around the park and the conservation efforts. It is also so because you get to spend a full hour with gorillas in their native habitat and visitor numbers are restricted. You can’t touch or play with them and you are to try and avoid eye contact. This is for your sake and theirs. The risk for them is that they get too used to humans. The risk for you is that you could be crushed under the fun and goodwill. But don’t worry, watching them play with no bars between them and you is plenty fulfilling.
If you feel you’d be scared without something to separate you and them, don’t consider this trip. Getting scared and screaming could make them defensive and this means a management issue for the rangers who accompany you. The gorillas sometimes punch or push you, thinking you are a friend and wanting to play. The rangers are strict and forbid you to react to ensure emotional separation and safety. When my mother and brother went while I was studying for my exams, the gorillas seemed to really like my brother in particular. Bouncing all around him, tapping him and showing immense curiosity in him.
So what happens exactly?
Before you go a guide will tell you how to act around the gorillas and other necessary safety information. You then have to trek to find them and are accompanied by both a guide, tracker, and ranger. The guides and trackers communicate through signs (like a mark on a tree for example) and radio to find where the gorilla families are. The time it takes can vary. Be aware it is no leisurely stroll. I was up to my shins in mud and had a pair of red ant pincers in my foot when I emerged from the rain forest. The red ant isn’t poisonous but it gives you a serious pinch. It managed to get through my socks. The guides likely speak French, Swahili, English and their native language. (Luganda, Kinyarwanda or Lingala) Of the three countries, some are more expensive but they are a little more leisurely and teach you more about gorillas. Either way, you will get to say you’ve seen a gorilla in its natural habitat.
Initially, the anticipation for seeing gorillas hadn’t really struck me. It hadn’t sunk in because it didn’t feel real… Until I saw a silverback plonk onto the ground and close its eyes, making me feel very connected to his laziness. An array of colourful words of disbelief flew through my mind. Then I turned my head and saw an adolescent gorilla perching, munching on something and my mind just went blank with silent awe. I looked to another checking their cousin for lice, another rolling around with their sibling, another holding their baby. It was mesmerising, incredible… They are insanely cute but the main thing going through my head was how human-like they were, though they are gentler than us despite their mighty strength.
An hour went by in a flash. I took a few photos then decided to observe without technology and it was suddenly over. I’m still not sure what else to write except that it is something that should be on more people’s bucket lists. My respect for wildlife preservers increased greatly. But more than that, my respect for gorillas increased. They really do deserve your respect, the way they support each other, the way they’re so chill unless you mess with them, in which case you’re done for…
Gorillas aside, the rain forest was incredible. There wasn’t a proper path so I truly had a sense of the wilderness. It was hot and wet, there were insects and intertwining branches all around. I managed to catch sight of a beautiful electric-blue butterfly. My mother asked the guide to walk slower so we could take it in. It was worth it.
I really appreciate this kind of animal seeing. I don’t do zoos because animals are closed off but national parks are a good halfway. While in the grand scale of things, it would be better if animals could just live without us bothering them at all, in our vast and developing world, it makes sense that drawing income from animal-observing tourists is a good way to give them their own space and to ensure they aren’t hunted.
Another example of seeing magnificent animals up close is the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s elephant orphanage in Nairobi, where you can interact with elephant calves, watch them play, stroke them and sponsor their care. You may also be able to see rhinos. You can only see them in the morning as they can’t get too used to humans. When they are older and ready, they go back into the wild. The trust helps these young elephants whose parents were killed by poachers, to live freely again.
The people who work with the elephants and gorillas alike, in my experience, are extremely respectful and gentle so you can trust that the animals are treated kindly.
I hope you get a chance to experience wildlife in all its beauty!
If you want to learn more about the gorillas and the politics of the region, check out a documentary on Netflix called ‘Virunga’. Trailer here. There are numerous documentaries that show the Elephant Orphanage.